In the Guildhall Art Gallery is a canvas depicting The Heart of the Empire painted in 1904 by the Danish artist Niels Lund. It is a view of London looking west from on top of the Royal Exchange: in the distance is the dome of St Paul’s; in the foreground the Mansion House and, on the acute corner formed by Queen Victoria Street and Poultry, the block of Victorian Gothic buildings then occupied by the jewellers Mappin & Webb. Eight decades on, this and its neighbours became the focus of two momentous planning inquiries provoked by the attempts by Peter, now Lord, Palumbo to replace them, first by an office tower designed by the celebrated German-American modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and then by a block designed by the British architect Sir James Stirling.
‘Circling the Square’, an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects of original drawings, models and documents connected with both projects (until 25th June), invites comparisons between the two very different approaches to building in the City of London by these two architects. What, however, this show does not really explore is just how important (and acrimonious) those resulting two inquiries were; they were landmarks both in the history of modern architecture and of architectural conservation in Britain. This is a story now somewhat forgotten but one which is still of relevance because of the way our planning laws were then interpreted.
Like others, I was astonished when Lord Palumbo unveiled his plans in 1982, as they seemed already out of date. He appeared to be oblivious to the questioning of the imperatives of the Modern Movement which had taken place in the 1970s and to the growing appreciation of the value of retaining and adapting historic buildings, for he was proposing to clear away 10 listed Victorian buildings in favour of a free-standing bronze-clad 19-storey rectilinear tower, designed two decades earlier by an architect who was no longer alive. It emerged that Palumbo and his father had begun acquiring the site in 1958 and that Mies had been commissioned back in 1962. Planning approval had been granted in 1969 (the year Mies died) but withheld by the City Corporation until most of the site had been acquired.
But by 1982 times had changed and the City was now opposed to the scheme, so a public inquiry was held two years later in which Palumbo and his allies were pitted against the Corporation, the Greater London Council, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Victorian Society and others. Attempts were made to ridicule ‘restrictive’ planning controls and to rubbish the listed buildings on the site as a ‘motley collection’ – buildings which an alternative scheme by Terry Farrell demonstrated were capable of retention and re-use. I am pleased to find that I wrote at the time (in the Spectator) that, ‘Victorian commercial buildings […] are more suitable for conversion to new technology […] than speculative office blocks of the 1950s and 1960s’ – a claim justified by subsequent demolitions. Much was made of Palumbo’s ‘single minded pursuit of excellence’ that he proposed to erect something which would now, alas, be called ‘iconic’. He himself claimed that the posthumous Mies tower would have ‘a classical, conservative quality that is at once timeless and understated’, yet architecture can only be of its own time, and can and must date.
Worse than the proposed Miesian tower was the proposal to create ‘Mansion House Square’ in front of it. One argument in favour was that this arid cleared space (above subterranean shopping) would reveal, for the first time ‘unobstructed views’ of the surrounding buildings. This naïve modernist conception, opposed by those who liked the complexity of the City, full of the small shops, bars and cafes that a working commercial environment needs, ignored the fact that the side of the Mansion House is an unsatisfactory composition not intended to dominate an urban space and that the brilliant façade of Lutyens’ (former) Midland Bank was designed to be seen obliquely in a cavernous narrow street.
Into this controversy, jumping on the bandwagon, came the Prince of Wales who announced that it would be ‘a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined and St Paul’s dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London’. It now suits Palumbo’s apologists to blame his first defeat on royal interference, but this is to impugn the integrity of the presiding inspector. I would also like to think that the letter I solicited from the American architect Philip Johnson, who not only had known Mies well, but had collaborated with him on the Seagram building in New York, was more important. ‘I consider it a bad idea for one of the greatest architects of the 20th century to be represented in what may be the greatest city in the 20th century by a posthumous and unimportant piece of architecture,’ he wrote. ‘Mies and London deserve better monuments.’
In 1985, the secretary of state for the environment, the late Patrick Jenkin, in endorsing his inspector’s rejection of the Mies scheme, noted that redevelopment nevertheless might not be ruled out if ‘acceptable’ proposals were made, thus encouraging Palumbo to try again, which he did the following year with more contextual proposals by Stirling. This time there was no square and a mere eight listed buildings were to go (in a conservation area!), as the Victorian classical building at the end of Queen Victoria Street was now spared. The City remained opposed, as did English Heritage, so another inquiry was held in 1988. This time a different inspector considered that the secretary of state had given ‘a very strong hint as to how he might view proposals that were of a different kind…’ and that the Stirling design ‘would be a worthy modern addition to the architectural fabric of the City. It might just be a masterpiece.’
Another secretary of state, the late Nicholas Ridley, agreed. But SAVE Britain’s Heritage did not, and ‘questioned the inspector’s reliance on a subjective comparison of the Stirling design and the existing historic buildings […] giving little weight to the “presumption” in favour of the retention of listed buildings in official planning guidelines.’ Again, I wrote at the time that it was ‘scandalous that the Secretary of State has perverted the planning system to allow a single rich, inflexible and ruthlessly determined individual to indulge his megalomaniac obsession with building a monument on a particular site’. SAVE bravely took the case to the High Court, where they lost, then to the Court of Appeal, where they won, and finally to the House of Lords, where they lost – and were saddled with costs. Work began on the new No. 1 Poultry in 1994. Ironically, this is itself now a listed building, recently granted II* status because alterations were proposed to remedy its manifest defects, not least that the prominent arched entrance on the corner is never used, because impractical. Previously, no building younger than 30 years could be listed unless considered worthy of Grade I.
It is surely reasonable to ask whether this incoherently planned mélange of postmodern clichés was really designed by ‘Big Jim’ himself, who died in 1992 before work began. And what is interesting, as Thomas Muirhead points out, is that Stirling, at one stage, considered retaining the old Mappin & Webb building of 1870. If only. In that rumbustious commercial design, John Belcher effortlessly turned the acute corner with a large round conical-roofed turret that was at once appropriate, handsome, and practical. I lament its disappearance every time I pass by.
From the May 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.